With Cinco de Mayo approaching, many are unaware of the fact that Blacks had a role in that key May 5, 1862 battle that saw the Mexicans upset the French. The Battle of Puebla was won by an undermanned, undertrained army of Mexican peasants that was outnumbered by the French army by at least a two-to-one ratio.
Although the Mexicans were fighting the French to keep their country, many people (including African Americans) do not realize that the Mexicans were also fighting for the freedom of the Blacks who escaped slavery from Southern states such as Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The French, in their attempt to take control of Mexico under the command of Napoleon III, intended to re-enslave those Blacks who had attained their freedom by escaping the South.
Mexico had abolished slavery 33 years prior to this battle, and the Mexicans refused to have that practice reinstituted in their country.
Many of the Blacks who became involved in the Cinco de Mayo power struggle were products of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 put into effect by the United States, a country still fiercely divided over the issue of slavery. This act ruled that slave masters from the southern United States could go into the northern part of the country to locate their runaway slaves. If an owner could find them, the law read, he could apprehend them and take back to his plantation.
Opponents of slavery such as Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad, and Abolitionists (a White anti-slavery activist group) came up with a plan. Instead of helping slaves escape to Northern states, they would help them on a sojourn all the way to Canada. This was most beneficial to freedom-seeking Blacks from North and South Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky.
For slaves in the deep South, however, this northern trek to Canada was virtually impossible and unrealistic. Instead, Blacks from the Delta, Bayou, and Gulf Shores found that liberation could come by fleeing further south to Mexico. As documented in the book “Trails to Freedom” by Phyllis Devereaux, many Blacks found liberation in parts of Mexico such as Acapulco, Veracruz, and Costa Chica.
Generations later, Black people can still be found in these parts. However, the history of Blacks in Mexico originated long before the Underground Railroad of the 19th century.
Since the late 1400s, the history of North, Central, and South America has been influenced by three cultures: Native American, European, and African. The early African presence in the Americas is usually associated with the slave trade in the United States, the Caribbean, Brazil, Central America, Colombia, and Peru. Although it is not generally taught in history books, Mexico was also a key port of entry for slave ships and ultimately had a large African population. As a matter of fact, during the colonial era, there were more Africans than Europeans in Mexico.
This was all recorded in the 1946 book, “The Black Population in Mexico,” written by the late University of Veracruz professor Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran. Professor Beltran insisted that the Blacks did not disappear but took part in influencing the great racial mixture that is now modern-day Mexico.
“Because of race mixture,” Beltran explained, “Much of the African presence is no longer discernible except in a few places such as Veracruz and the Costa Chica in Guerrero and Oaxaca.”
In Mexico, many of the Africans who entered the country (through slavery or on their own accord) landed in what are now the states of Chiapas, Guerrero, Mexico, Michoacan, Oaxaca, Tlaxcala, Veracruz, and Yucatan. Contrary to popular belief, they did not stay in the southern end but migrated and settled throughout all of Mexico. Throughout the country, Blacks were employed as miners, fishermen, ranchers, sharecroppers, and in the textile industry. Others were explorers and co-founders of settlements as far north as Los Angeles and other parts of what are now the Southwest United States (Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico).
Prior to independence from Spain, there were many slave uprisings in the Americas, including in Mexico.
“The first documented slave rebellion in Mexico was in 1537,” said Nelly Cazares, program director of Soledad Enrichment Action. “This was followed by the establishment of various runaway slave settlements called ‘palenques.’”
Some uprisings were in collaboration with Native Americans and mestizos (i.e., those of Native American and European ancestry) as far north as Chihuahua.
In 1608, Spaniards negotiated the establishment of a free Black community with Yanga, a free runaway slave. That community, in Veracruz, bears its founder’s name today.
Additionally, the main guerilla fighters who helped Mexico achieve independence from Spain in 1821 were Native Americans, mestizos, and mulattos (i.e., those with a mixture of Black/African ancestry). One of the integral figures of the independence movement was Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon, who was mulatto, and Mexico’s second president Vicente Guerrero, also mulatto. President Guerrero officially abolished slavery in Mexico in 1822, though the law did not take effect until 1829.
Beltran’s research was not well-received in Mexico, says Claudia Rosado, Latino Studies administrator of Somos La Raza in Las Vegas. “By 1946,” Rosado says, “the mindset of the Mexican nation and its culture as a mixture of Native American and Spaniard blood was well-formed.” Because of this, Rosado added, many of the African contributions to the Mexican landscape (art, food, music, genetic features) are either ignored or explained away as a mere coincidence.
“The Black influence and involvement in the culture of Mexico is pretty well-pronounced,” Rosado commented. “And at the same time, Mexicans called ‘mestizos’ played a key role in the liberation of those African Americans who escaped American slavery by coming south of the border. Once here, those African Americans made contributions to the country. The Underground Railroad for mestizos and Blacks was a mutually beneficial union at that time.”
The Underground Railroad, the secret network of people helping enslaved Blacks escape to freedom, went North to the northern United States and Canada. To those in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, the Underground Railroad reached south beyond the U.S. border to freedom. Mexico’s role in the Underground Railroad as a safe haven to African American runaway slaves during the 19th century is often hidden history.
The U.S.-based railroad crossed deep into its neighbor’s country, where slavery had been abolished in 1829–36 years before the U.S. would follow suit, after the South was destroyed by the North in the Civil War. The southernmost point of the Underground Railroad was the “Freedom Station,” located in Mazamitla, Jalisco in Mexico. Many descendants of these slaves still live in Mexico.
Another way Blacks reached freedom in Mexico from 1776 to 1865, was by collaborating with the Seminole Native American tribes. During the Seminole Wars, the U.S. government drove the Native Americans from their lands in Florida and the Native American territory. According to Rafael Magana’s “Negros y Mestizos,” the Native American tribe was looking for a new place to make their home just as African Americans were seeking a place to be free from slavery. Both cultures united and in 1850 nearly 300 Blacks and Seminoles fled to Mexico together.
The leader of the Seminoles, John Horse, said, “When we came fleeing slavery, Mexico was a land of freedom, and the Mexicans spread out their arms to us.”
The Mexican government granted the Blacks and the Seminoles land in Northern Mexico. This territory included the regions known today as Nacimiento and Muzquiz.
Additionally, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, free Blacks and Creole Blacks escaped from Louisiana in small groups and formed communities on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. In the 1850s, the government of Louisiana restricted the rights of free African Americans. This prompted Black people to move to Mexico, where their rights would not be dictated by race.
During Reconstruction, from 1865-77, after the Civil War, some free Blacks returned to Louisiana from Mexico. In the 1880s, however, when Jim Crow laws institutionalized segregation, the Creole descendants of this generation fled to Mexico again in search of racial equality. This group reconnected with their relatives in Mexico.
As the 20th century took effect and the Mexican Revolution came to an end in 1920, the African American community was coming together through various movements in the U.S. that rebelled against racism and segregation. The artists who participated in these movements were creating a body of work entirely done by and for African Americans. They wanted to change the image of Black people in the U.S. from being one that was defined by slavery to one that was positive and defined by African cultures. This was happening in the U.S. just as Mexicans were reconstructing their country which had been torn apart by a decade of war. In Mexico, artists were rebuilding the national image of Mexicans as well. The similar movements in the U.S. and Mexico positioned African Americans and Mexicans for a compelling exchange of ideas, techniques, and even people.
Depending on the point of view, the African presence in Mexico is either denied or obscured. Beltran’s work in “The Black Population in Mexico” does provide knowledge many Mexicans and Mexican Americans have historically been unaware of–that they, like other Latinos (e.g., Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Brazilians, etc.), have not only Native American and Spanish but African ancestry as well. In times of social discord between Blacks and Latinos, the historical synergy of the cultures serves as a reminder that both communities share common ancestry.